Health Minister urges Cuenca to drop masking rule; New landslide in Sayausí could delay highway reopening; Was ‘Big Money’ murder a drug hit?

May 16, 2022 | 37 comments

Minister of Health Ximena Garzon repeated Saturday her request that Cuenca, Guayaquil and four other cantons drop their requirement for face masks. “Ninety-six percent of the communities in the country have followed our advice to discontinue the masking requirement and we are requesting that the others do so as well,” she said. “The situation in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic continues to improve. While it is important that we exercise caution, especially with the vulnerable population, it is also time to resume our normal routines.”

Following the most recent landslide, a tractor removes mud and rocks from the roadway in Sayausi Saturday night, (El Mercurio)

In her Saturday report, Garzon said there were 1,099 positive Covid test results during the week, down by 174 from the week before. She said only five percent of hospital beds and two percent of ICU units were occupied by Covid patients. One Covid death was reported during the week, in Guayaquil.

In her comments, Garzon said the Covid-19 Omicron variant poses a lower health threat than previous strains. “It is important that people understand that it is similar to the common cold and does not carry the risk of the Alpha and Delta outbreaks that were so deadly. We believe we are emerging from the pandemic and our rules and health measures should reflect this new reality.”

Following the Health Ministry’s and national Emergency Operations Committee’s recommendation two weeks ago that the face mask requirement be dropped nationally, the Cuenca municipal council voted to maintain it locally, citing the need for more epidemiological data.

During the week that ended Friday, there were no Covid patients in Cuenca ICU units and only one being treated in a local hospital. The positivity rate for Covid tests in the Health Ministry’s Zone 6, which includes Cuenca, stood at three percent. Nationally, the positivity rate is 4.5 percent.

On Saturday, a spokesman for the Azuay governor’s office suggested that dispute over Cuenca’s masking requirement may be moot. “Since there is no enforcement of it, the rule is essentially a recommendation,” he said. “There have been no citations issued to the unmasked in Cuenca since February and if any are imposed they would be rejected by the courts.”

New landslide in Sayusi could delay highway reopening
Weekend rains triggered another landslide in the Marianza sector of Sayausí, temporarily closing the Cajas highway on Saturday and Sunday.  Although the highway was open Sunday night it is unclear if the Transportation Ministry will go ahead with its plan to reopen the section of the roadway near Molleturo, where stabilization work is ongoing. The Ministry announced last week that the highway would reopen Monday during daylight hours. The highway, the main route between Cuenca and Guayaquil, has been undergoing reconstruction since January.

On Sunday, residents of Sayausí demanded faster action to stabilize the mountain above the highway, claiming that repeated blockages affect workers’ access to jobs in Cuenca and farmers ability to get products to market.

Agustín Ordóñez, Marianza community leader, called the situation urgent. “We were told that remediation would be begin immediately after the March disaster but there have been delays that leave people unable to carry out their daily activities.” The project was given emergency status after the March 27 landslide that killed five people and destroyed several houses.

Transportation Minister Marcelo Cabrera said Sunday that “intensified work” would begin within a matter of days. “The rainy season is ending, which allows us to move in more equipment,” he said. “We have been doing preparatory work over the last month and that is almost compete.”

A Ministry spokeswoman said Sunday that the decision to reopen the Cuenca-Molleturo-Guayaquil highway was being reevaluated and that a decision would be announced Monday.

Meanwhile, recent rains are also blamed for a landslide Saturday in Turi, south of Cuenca. Four houses were damaged and several families were evacuated due to the slide.

Arrests in ‘Big Money’ murder indicate link to drug gang
Suspected links of the “Big Money” investment scam and organized drug traffickers may have been confirmed last week when three men were arrested for the murder of Miguel Nazareno, aka Don Naza. Nazareno’s body was found April 14, south of Quito.

‘Big Money’ Miguel Nazareno was found murdered on April 14, near Quito.

Freddy Sarzosa, head a special police investigation unit, said investigators had believed for more than a year that the “Big Money” operation, based in Quevedo, had connection to crime gangs transporting illegal drugs through Ecuador. At least of those arrested was a member of the Los Lobos crime gang, which has ties to Mexican and Colombian cartels. “We believe the kidnapping and murder of Don Naza was a hit job orchestrated by the drug bosses.”

Sarzosa added: “The amount of money processed indicated it was not an investment and loan operation for the local population,” he said. “Millions of dollars were processed through Big Money, much more than the citizens of Los Rios Province would have had. With the arrests and new information we are gathering, we believe we will soon have a full picture of what Big Money and Don Naza were all about.”

Tame jet being deconstructed at the Cuenca airport
Work is underway to disassemble the wrecked Tame Airlines jet that has been parked at Cuenca’s Mariscal La Mar airport for six years. The Embraer190AR aircraft skidded off the runway April 28, 2016 with 92 passengers and crew aboard. According to appraisers, damage to the jet was “extensive and beyond repair.”

An investigation concluded that the accident, in which there were no injuries, was the result of pilot error. The pilots calculated the aircraft’s weight based on that of another jet and landed half-way down the airport’s runway. Tame Air, operated by the government, ended operations in 2018.

Airport authorities say the disassembly of the jet should be completed in about a month.


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